I’m honoured to present a new interview with Long Island filmmaker, teacher and historian...Mr. Keith J. Crocker. Keith is the director of The Bloody Ape (1997) and Blitzkrieg: Escape from Stalag 69 (2007), teaches adult education filmmaking, genre courses, and regularly does cinema and tv related presentations. He is also responsible for two particurly important horror/(s)exploitation resources – The Exploitation Journal fanzine and the Cinefear website (http://www.cinefear.com/home.html).
In the halcyon days of horror/exploitation zinedom, Keith co-founded The Exploitation Journal. First published in 1987, what made EXJ a standout from the rest of the pack was that it featured amongst the first in-depth articles on Andy Milligan, Michael and Roberta Findlay, Jess Franco and Joe D’Amato. Back when hardcore fans of exploitation and drive-in cinema had to rely on fanzines for their information before everything could be found in one click, they could count on EXJ for carefully researched material written in an inimitable, entertaining, occasionally hilarious style (as opposed to the avalanche of tedious imitation zines that followed consisting of text ripped off verbatim from mainstream horror mags, repetition of facts everyone already knows ad naseum and sloppily-written film reviews).
Beginning as a typewritten, photocopied zine, The Exploitation Journal gradually transformed into a more professionally produced, desktop-published read, whilst continuing to fill its pages with quality articles on diverse subjects such as Victor Israel and AIP biker films and rare interviews with the likes of producer Don Davison, director Norman J. Warren, actors Mel Wells and Carol Speed, and more). As well as special issues dedicated to Spanish and Mexican horror films, American drive-in filmmakers, and The Last House on the Left. Keith also helms Cinefear Video, one of the longest-running sources for rare and unavailable films, operating since 1992. A collector’s site run by fans for fans, Cinefear is dedicated to first-rate, highly knowledgeable and quality service. If they don’t have it, there’s a 99.99% they’ll find it for you....
Keith’s debut feature film The Bloody Ape is an incredibly ambitious homage to sex and violence soaked exploitation cinema. Shot on Super-8 film, Crocker sticks two fingers up to the ‘keep it safe, keep it politically correct, keep it pretty’ brigade by giving his film an intentionally ugly, flawed, scuzzy look and atmosphere. The authentic no-budget ‘grimy’ look is welcomingly reminiscent of the works of such aueters as Andy Milligan, H.G. Lewis and S.F. Brownrigg, when one didn’t need $100,000,000, CGI every 2 minutes and daddy’s connections to make an entertaining film. Crocker goes to town packing in as much mayhem as possible in its 77-minute running time – the cast of scummy, repulsive charmers hurl bile-filled insults around whilst the blood and sex-crazed Ape crashes around suburbia tearing limbs and pawing women. Following The Bloody Ape, Keith created a miracle out of a micro-budget again with Blitzkrieg: Escape from Stalag 69. Aside from being a throwback to the short-lived Nazisploitation craze of the mid-late 1970’s (with references to the Ilsa films and The Beast in Heat amongst others), Blitzkrieg was also inspired by the classic WW2 play-turned movie Stalag 17, a character-driven satire.
I first met Keith in 2013 when he found me on Facebook via a then friend of mine, saw that I was a writer specializing in European horror/exploitation cinema of the 1970-80s, and invited me to write reviews of Cinefear product. Along with John Harrison (interviewed elsewhere on this blog), Keith was instrumental in inspiring me to really get back into again (I’d been on a hiatus from 2007-13 due to personal reasons), something which I’ll always be extremely grateful for. Many thanks to KC for taking a break from his busy schedule to answer my questions. And as always, telling it how it is!!!
What is your earliest memory of seeing a movie theatrically, if you can remember the first film you ever saw?
The Albert Finney version of Scrooge (1970), which I actually had seen in 1971. I was six years old. My older brother took me. His girlfriend worked the ticket booth, hence it was a free ride. We sat in the balcony. I was scared to death (the hooded figure of the grim reaper was too much for me to take). The film was on a double bill with Blue Water, White Death (1971), which we didn’t stay for. I also remember seeing an awful Peter Sellers comedy called Undercovers Heroes (1974). It stood out because it was the first time I ever had seen naked women on the big screen (or naked women in general).
How and when did you discover and really get into horror/trash/cult cinema?
As a youth, my family tended to watch TV programming as there was six of us kids to keep amused. We watched Chiller Theater, which showed horror movies on our local station channel 11. This show ran from the 60’s through the early 80’s. The movies horrified yet they stayed in my conscience collectively. They were therapeutic; they helped me get over childhood fears. We’re talking movies like Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931). But the movie that scared the hell out of me was The Beast With Five Fingers (1947). That severed hand crawling about sent me over the edge. I swore that hand was going to come creeping up my wall. In the theater I was seeing movies like Burnt Offerings (1976), The Tenant (1976) and Tidal Wave (1975).
Then we got cable vision. There was a channel called Escapade. This channel would later become the Playboy channel, at that point it turned to shit. But as Escapade, it was my film education. They took movies straight out of the drive-in and right into my home. I had a chance to see all the Corman Nurse pictures. I got to see the Russ Meyer films. Italian gangster movies like Ricco, The Mean Machine (1973). Here it was re-titled Cauldron of Death. I got to see the Radley Metzger films. My mind was blown, I wasn’t coming back. Then I had seen a double bill of Night of the Living Dead (1968) and Freaks (1932) in a theater in 1978. I decided I would be a filmmaker from that point on.
When did you first discover a like-minded ‘community’ of fans/collectors of these films whom you could correspond and collaborate with?
Not until I went to college. I certainly had friends in primary school that liked horror and sci-fi, but none that were passionate enough to seek it out or make it. So it was in collage that I really started to meet people who could be called fans. Prior to that I was making films with friends, but you could quickly lose friends putting them in your films (LOL). In college we were all there for the same reason.
What are your fondest memories of your time as co-founder, editor and writer of THE EXPLOITATION JOURNAL, one of the best and most respected genre fanzines of the 1980s and 90s?
I’m very proud of every venture I entered into. The Exploitation Journal is one of those ventures that I’ll adore and hold close to my heart till my dying day. The EXJ started with Joe Parda and myself in 1987. It was our way of informing and lightening up a very close-minded film department. In many ways, when it began, it was the college’s unofficial school newspaper. Finally, the college could no longer ignore it and wanted us to produce it on their grounds provided we open it up to the whole film department. We didn’t want to do that, we felt it would ruin what we set out to do, so we refused. We ran an exploitation film festival at the college. We used a projection unit hooked up to a VCR. The video boom was at its height. We showed Caged Heat, Forbidden World, Erotikill (Loves of Irina) and Night of the Bloody Apes. The folks who attended this festival were gob smacked. They had no clue what hit them. It was truly a highlight of my life. I did 25 total issues of EXJ. The first eight we sold mail order. Then we picked up distribution. Parda worked on issues 1 through 15. George Reis worked on issues 16, then volume 2, 1-7. Then I did volume 3, 1-3 solo. I brought it in for a landing in 2005. All our distributors were out of business. The fanzine was over. It was great while it lasted.
What’s the most extreme reaction to a horror/exploitation film that you’ve personally ever witnessed?
That’s a very interesting question. Movies like Nightmare (in a Damaged Brain) left audiences numb. They walked out like they were run over by a car. I had seen Andy Warhol’s Frankenstein in 3-D in 1982. The audience went nuts, they ate it up. Most of them had remembered the 1978 re-release. The movie that literally had people walking out of the theater was David Cronenberg’s remake of The Fly. Not since The Exorcist has a movie had that an upsetting reaction from a mass audience. It was one of the last really powerful films I had seen screened in a movie theater.
When did you first cross over from the VHS format to DVD?
I was a die-hard. My first DVD player happened around 2000. I bought it from a friend at work who was getting rid of his first machine. While I certainly grew to accept the world of DVD (I had to if I was going to continue running Cinefear Video), I had become so used to Beta and VHS which held domain for close to 20 years. I was also very leery of laser rot, I had seen what happened to laser discs and figured the same would happen to DVD. I had felt that video represented the types of movies I watched just fine. Certainly there was a lot you could do with DVD that you couldn’t do with VHS (namely all those extras they include). Blu Ray though is a whole other matter. For the type of cinema I like, it tends not to do those films justice at all. I honestly do not believe that exploitation cinema looks better cleaned up. In fact, Blu Ray exposes every fault imaginable in films. It takes away the shadows and often ruins the mood of a film. I’m not saying Blu Ray shouldn’t exist, but it shouldn’t be applied to all forms of cinema. For films already shot in HD, fine. For epics that were shot well, no problem. For Andy Milligan, not really. For H. G. Lewis, not really. Get my point?
How do you find the current genre scene in general as compared to say, two decades ago when it was the early days of the World Wide Web and still largely based around print zines and snail mail correspondence?
The world of fandom is and will always be ripe with assholes. This applies to all forms of fandom, not just film. But a fan base is like a window left open, you have no clue who is going to come crawling in. Pre-internet, you could always escape easier, you could get away from people you didn’t want to deal with. The internet is like an open wound that keeps getting infected. It exposes you to every type of poisonous person out there. Now, because I have to maintain a public profile, I have to be on social networks like Facebook. Facebook, in my opinion, is a cancer. I have hundreds of followers, yet in all reality I wouldn’t want to know 75% of those people. In fact in most cases I have no clue who the fuck they are. Most of the people on Facebook are false faces, they are full of shit about themselves. Others are chronic complainers; they use Facebook as a therapy session, only no ones getting paid to listen to them. And still others use it to argue politics and religion, two topics that no one dares to raise at a dinner table simply because there is no middle ground there. Facebook confirmed for me my misanthropic mindset. But it also showed me that I’m 100% correct. That said, I honestly miss pre-internet fandom. Everyone was an archeologist in those days; we were all looking for relics. Now we’ve got people who want to be owners only. Fandom belongs to them and no one else. The Internet has made fandom petty.
What are your all-time favorite films (of any genre) and whom do you believe are the greatest directors of all time?
Freaks and Night of the Living Dead both blew my mind. My feet never touched ground again after those two. I had seen a theatrical re-release of the Exorcist in 1978, prior to my seeing it that film was a legend. Regardless of what I had heard, The Exorcist is a very hard act to top. I also had a chance to see a re-release of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre in 1980. I had never seen such an intense picture in all my life. If you notice, these films mean so much more to me because I did get to see them theatrically. The key to me is being able to see these films in a theater. The experience was just so much more intense. I also had the pleasure to see films such as The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly shown at a film festival, same with The Wild Bunch. Again, it changed the way I viewed film. I love too many films to list them all, and I love them for many different reasons. As far as filmmakers go; Alejandro Jodorowsky, Andy Milligan, Stanley Kubrick are just a few of my faves because they don’t compromise with their visions. I thought Mike Findlay was a super unique filmmaker. I love dudes like Chano Urueta, Rene Cardona Sr. & Jr., Rafael Baledon because they were Mexican surrealists forced into making Mexican commercial cinema. There horror films are just completely unique. I also really enjoyed most (not all) of Jess Franco’s out put, as well as Jean Rollin. Anyhow, folks don’t want to be reading weeks worth of my answers so I’ll stop this now (LOL)
You have an incredible collection of both movies and film memorabilia (posters, lobby cards, books, clippings, and much more). What are some of your all-time best bargains or freebies you had with obtaining these?
I was blessed in many different ways when it came to collecting. But first let me state that I never, ever really wanted to collect anything! It’s true, owning things does way you down in many respects. That said, I use my collection when I teach, so in many ways that helps me justify some of what I have. The first genre posters I ever received were giving to me by my brother’s friend, who knew I liked horror films. In that batch of posters were one sheets for Blood Orgy of the She Devils and Shadow of the Cat. We also had a poster dealer who had a shop in East Meadow. He was a gruff old marine who served in WWII. He had no or very little interest in horror film material, but he had tons of it. Of my greatest prizes from him was a one sheet for Snuff, which listed the films premier and the theater it premiered at. The poster cost me $2.50 at the time. Care to guess what it’s worth now? And that was pretty much his price range for movies of that sort; I paid $15.00 for a half sheet of the film The Man Who Could Cheat Death. There was also Big Reel magazine. Both myself and George Reis picked up 35mm trailers for movies such as The Incredible Two Headed Transplant, Lady Frankenstein, Master of Horror and countless others for $5.00 dollars a piece. One of those trailers goes for over $100.00 now. I’m lucky because I happened to be at the right place at the right time.
You’ve been involved with cinema as a director, writer and teacher for three decades now. What are some of your thoughts on the vast technological changes you’ve observed and adapted to in your involvement in these fields during this time?
Film separated the men from the boys. If we were still shooting film, the “Do it yourself” film market would not be over glutted. Any idiot with a smart phone shoots footage of something and then calls themselves “film makers”. Don’t get me wrong, there is a genius out there who more than likely can make a great film on a smart phone, we have yet to find them. I was trained on film, I hated the look of video, so of course my preference is to see film. However, technology and the world have moved on, and now it is actually impractical to shoot film. When digital video came along, I was happy because it was easier to attain a faux film look, hence why I shot my second feature on digital video. I’m not a fan of HD, I believe it is way too clean an image, and hence it’s a lot harder to set a mood when you can’t light a scene the way you’d do it if you were shooting film. That said, HD is a standard now if you want distribution, hence in the near future I will be forced to use it. The biggest problem with all of this home based technology is that a ton of idiots have invaded the arena but have brought nothing to the table. The worst thing in the world of arts is the “fanboy”. Fanboy filmmakers are a product of inbreeding. In other words, because there heads are filled with movies that are not their own, they seek out to replicate the type of movies they are fans of, not for a minute going out of their comfort zone and coming up with anything truly unique. Hence fanboy films have all the nutritional content of vomit. When I hear somebody brag “I’m going to make a slasher film”, the only thing that runs through my head is “why, it’s all been said and done to death”. Come up with something unique for Christ’s sake!
What general advice would you give to aspiring low/no-budget filmmakers hoping to establish themselves?
To be as original as possible, stop over tilling the fields, the field have been turned over too many times, there are no more nutrients left. Stop trying to recreate the past; it’s virtually impossible to do. Go forward, reach out to other subjects, and look to establish yourself as a force to be reckoned with. There are so many genres out there, so many subjects not covered, go out and fill in what is missing. Documentaries are about the only good films being made these days, so many subjects to document, and even more outlets for documentaries than ever before. Don’t go into this business expecting money. Don’t go into this business looking to be a millionaire. Those days are long gone. Go back in for the art of it, not the money end. DVD is virtually dead. Blu Ray is meant for specific titles with specific followings, and those sales suck as well. You don’t make shit with downloads, and downloads are hard to track. The film business has screwed itself royally; making money in it is murder!
What works or projects are you most proud of?
As far as my films go, Bloody Ape is the most popular among fans. I shot that feature on film, it’s had a reputation on the underground since the day it was released. It’s one of my most accessible films in terms of sheer enjoyment. It was basically my first child, and you can’t hate your first child. Blitzkrieg: Escape From Stalag 69 is of course my second feature, and it was shot on digital video. Esthetically it is my most accomplished feature, it miles above Bloody Ape in so many ways, yet it was only my second film. But I made it with my head in a completely different space than it was in during Bloody Ape; hence it’s a completely different film. And so it should. I’ll never make a sequel to one of my own films. I’ll never remake one of my own films. Every film should be different from the last one. Each story should be fresh and new. And of course, I bow my head to The Exploitation Journal. Getting those issues put together and out to the public was just incredible. Any asshole can blog. But not everyone can put together a magazine from start to finish and get it distributed. We did.
What are some of your current and future projects you’d like to mention? What do your foresee for the future of Cinefear?
Cinefear stays alive because I have a small but steady customer base. Most of my clients like to own films on DVD, they don’t want to rely on the world of streaming and downloads. Cinefear Video is 27 years old. I intended to hang it up at 25 years. But because I have no overhead, and because I have enough loyal customers who still appreciate my service, I’ll continue to run provided it never becomes an expense. The next film I’m gearing up to make is called Three Slices of Delirium. It’s based on two Edgar Allan Poe stories and one story from Russian folklore. It’s a fantasy film, very different from the other two I made. It’s also going to be a period piece and very expensive, hence crowd funding, something I’ve been looking to avoid. The other film I want to make is Rasputin on Campus. I’ve had this idea since the 1980’s. It will be my masterpiece if I get it off the ground. I have every intention to do so. But I am getting older and lazier, so lets see if my artistic side wins out or my lazy side takes over. Because I do have a fan base, and because my films have played theatrically, I do believe I can get both of these films sold. Also, I have an unfinished documentary on being a projectionist in neighborhood grindhouses. We interviewed quite a few industry people for it (folks like Jamie Gillis, Joel M. Reed and Carter Stevens among others). The documentary kind of debunks the fact the 42nd St was the only entertainment center of it’s kind. The truth was that wherever you go, every town had a grindhouse, every town had an area that catered to peculiar tastes. This documentary proves that theory. And yes, I’m already in the process of shooting what needs to be shot to finish that film.
Finally, name three individuals in the public eye, living or dead, who you’d invite to dinner and/or get blind drunk with?
Jess Franco (who I had met), Don Davison (who was my mentor, but I never did get to drink with him) and Ed Wood Jr (during those years where he was making porno loops). Each of those guys represent various facets of my life in some way shape or form, and I’d actually love to get them together for one huge party and let it all rip. But since they are all no longer with us I’ll have to dream on this….